Review: PTP/NYC's "Dogg's Hamlet, Cahoot's Macbeth" is Spectacular Stoppard

Dogg's Hamlet, Cahoot's Macbeth

Written by Tom Stoppard

Directed by Cheryl Faraone

Presented by PTP/NYC at Atlantic Stage 2

330 W. 16th St., Manhattan, NYC

July 9-August 4, 2019

Matthew Ball. Photo credit: Stan Barouh.
One semester, a college where one of us was working held a meeting in which a student demonstrated to the campus writing tutors how to make an origami crane. The catch was that the student spoke only in Japanese, and the intention was for the table full of people with advanced degrees in English to feel what it was like for the English Language Learners with whom they worked. A similar feeling of linguistic dislocation befalls delivery driver Easy (Matthew Ball)—along with the audience—in the first half of Tom Stoppard's two-in-one play Dogg's Hamlet, Cahoot's Macbeth as his attempt to deliver some "blocks 'an that" is complicated by everyone else speaking only a language called "Dogg," made up of English words but not English. Playing in repertory with Havel: The Passion of Thought, which frames three plays by Czech writer, anti-Communist dissident, and, later, leader of his nation's government Václav Havel with works by Harold Pinter and Samuel Beckett (read our review here), PTP/NYC's (the Potomac Theatre Project, associated with Vermont's Middlebury College) production of Dogg's Hamlet, Cahoot's Macbeth is a spectacular piece of theater, which, in the words of director and PTP/NYC founder Cheryl Farone, asks both how one supports the arts and what they mean in a totalitarian society.

Lucy Van Atta, Peter Schmitz, Christo Grabowski,
and Connor Wright.  Photo credit: Stan Barouh. 
Stoppard's interest in language provides a focus elsewhere in his corpus, such as the wordplay-heavy The Boundary (1975, written with Clive Exton), the protagonists of which are compiling a dictionary, but Dogg's Hamlet, Cahoot's Macbeth represents this interest's most acute realization. The Dogg's Hamlet section was inspired by part of Ludwig Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations (published 1953), one conclusion of which is that two people might theoretically communicate, with the cooperation of coincidence, using two different languages without knowing that they are using two different languages. Stoppard writes in the introduction to the published version of his play, "The appeal to me consisted in the possibility of writing a play which had to teach the audience the language the play was written in." Dogg's Hamlet begins with alphabetically-named schoolchildren Abel (Zach Varricchione), Baker (Connor Wright), and Charlie (Madeleine Russell) testing a microphone, throwing a ball around, trading sandwiches, and so on, all while speaking solely in Dogg. It becomes apparent that preparations are underway for a performance, which turns out to be Hamlet (in the original English) and to which Easy's delivery of materials is connected. The day's events are overseen by headmaster Dogg (Peter Schmitz), who also plays Claudius in this amateur play-within-a-play (which makes "The Mousetrap" scene, hilariously enacted with flat puppets, a play-within-a-play-within-a-play); Hamlet is preceded by an official speech from a Lady (Tara Giordano), who in performance bears more than a slight resemblance to Queen Elizabeth II, and a ceremony awarding student prizes. Eventually, it should be noted, Easy bonds with Abel, Baker, and Charlie over their mutual dislike of their taskmaster, in a lower-stakes anticipation of events in Cahoot's Macbeth.

For non-Dogg speakers, all of this demonstrates, among other things, how much tone and gesture contribute to the creation of meaning in speech (some audience members are even directly addressed at one point in Dogg, intensifying such reflections) and, considering a phrase such as Easy's "I'll need a bit of a hand," how much of everyday language is actually highly metaphorical (and thus may or may not translate to another language). Immediately before Hamlet, Dogg, in costume, rattles off a litany of famous lines from the play, altering their meaning in their very decontextualization, much as their similar repetition within pop culture does. Dogg's Hamlet itself is reduced to its big moments, including, ironically for Stoppard fans, the excision of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and it is also uproariously overacted and immensely entertaining (Laertes' [Connor Wright] encounter with Ophelia's [Madeleine Russell] corpse provides one exceptional comic moment). This Hamlet would be worth seeing on its own, and when it concludes, an encore is called for.

Dogg's Hamlet as a whole is possessed of an antic disposition: it's extremely kinetic, packed with movement, activity, and flying objects. It's also packed with great touches from the actors, from Giordano's subtle tremors and intonation and rhythm as the Lady to Lucy Van Atta's reaction when, as Mrs. Dogg, she corrects her husband.

Denise Cormier, Christopher Marshall, Lucy Van Atta,
and Tara Giordano. Photo credit: Stan Barouh. 
 
Although Stoppard left Czechoslovakia as a very young child and has spent the vast majority of his life in the U.K., he eventually came to know and be influenced by Czech writers, including Václav Havel, some of whose plays he translated into English. It is to Czechoslovakia under communist rule that Cahoot's Macbeth, the second, linked play in the pair, turns. It turns specifically to a performance of Macbeth in an unnamed hostess's (Lucy Van Atta) apartment in the late 1970s. Apartment or cellar theaters such as this one provided a means to circumvent cultural restrictions or prohibitions on certain artists from publicly practicing. This abbreviated Macbeth, then, unlike Dogg's Hamlet, is played straight, beginning with the striking image of the Weird Sisters (Emily Ma, Olivia Christie, and Katie Marshall), who double as the murderers, lit from within their hoods (not unlike the serial murderer in the most recent season of the BBC's Luther). The first laugh, triggered by a coincidentally-timed police siren, is simultaneously a serious moment, as it heralds the arrival of the Inspector, played fabulously by Tara Giordano. The Inspector winds her intimidation in ironized cheerful cluelessness. She makes some funny meta jokes about audiences and artists, and she initiates another, funny-but-not moment of interaction with the audience. Her true concern is that Macbeth might be used subversively—as indeed Shakespeare's plays were within his own lifetime, when in 1601, Robert Devereux, the 2nd Earl of Essex, and his compatriots paid for a special performance of Richard II prior to their abortive rebellion against Queen Elizabeth I. The Inspector asserts, "Words can be your friend or your enemy, depending on who's throwing the book, so watch your language"; and indeed, Cahoot (Christo Grabowksi), who is playing Banquo and whose name as a character is a play on the name of Czech writer and dissident Pavel Kohout, attacks her by declaiming at her lines excoriating Macbeth's tyranny. By the end, the Inspector's claim, as well as the claim that new ideas and/couched in new language can spread like a virus, are put to the test as the two halves of Dogg's Hamlet, Cahoot's Macbeth cease to respect the division of that comma. The result is a climax that feels authentically triumphant even as it is gloriously absurd.

The entire cast in Dogg's Hamlet, Cahoot's Macbeth give superb performances, and particularly notable among this talented group of actors are, in addition to Giordano, Grabowski, who is equally fine whether he is collecting prizes as student Fox Major, pondering prophecy as Banquo, or barking as Cahoot; Christopher Marshall as a Macbeth whose performance changes as the situation changes around him; Matthew Ball as the initially perplexed but determined and good-natured Easy; and Russell, Varricchione, and Wright in their various roles. PTP/NYC's production of this absurdist play about words, words, words supplies an invigorating evening of theater on its own, and it gains some extra dimensions from also seeing Havel: The Passion of Thought. And we're not just saying that for the benefit of the surveillance state.

-John R. Ziegler and Leah Richards

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